Loss: Grieving Our Pets

(We are thrilled to have our friend, mentor, and fellow Grief Recovery Specialist Cari Dawson doing a guest blog for us today.)

First Love, First Loss: Grieving Our Pets

Sunday night, winter in the Ohio Valley, light snow falling and I’m sitting on my bed half listening to comedy programs on the radio, half doing my homework. It’s the 1950’s. My two younger sisters had gone to the neighborhood store for some milk. My year-old puppy, Toni, followed them, but didn’t see the car coming after my sisters crossed the street. Toni was hit and died immediately.  Of course, I didn’t know this until my sisters came running back to the house, hysterically summoning me.

I grabbed my coat in a daze, as I had been sitting in my underwear, and ran shoeless down the snowy hill. There was my beloved puppy lying in the street. I gathered her up and took her home, placed her on the kitchen floor and held her and wept uncontrollably.  Toni was my first significant loss, much more traumatic than the death of my great-grandfather with whom I grew up, who died about a year before. At that time, I recall my mother quietly shedding a few tears at his funeral, quickly gaining her composure, but that was the only display of grief I saw from her or any other relatives. She had modeled for me how to grieve.  You just shed a few tears and then stuff it. Move on. Something I was having difficulty doing.

It is not surprising in retrospect that I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me when I found myself becoming more and more depressed and, embarrassingly,  on the verge of tears for many months after Toni’s death. Embarrassed that I couldn’t control my feelings that wanted to bubble out just as they did when I held Toni on the kitchen floor of my childhood home. I was just entering puberty, trying to blend in with my contemporaries, trying to lead a normal life. And, no one seemed to notice how profoundly this loss had impacted me. No one asked about my feelings. Alone and isolated, I worked hard to stuff this loss deep within my psyche where it lay accumulating and gathering other losses and unresolved grief like a huge snowball over the ensuing 40 years.  In 1995, the Grief Recovery Method helped me delve into those painful old losses, including the loss of Toni, when another major loss—my granddaughter—led me to grief work.

My first significant loss and my adolescence seem quite remote now. In my seventies, I had the audacity to welcome a new furry companion into my life, Pace`.  She reminds me daily of what I know deep in my soul: Life and Love will always include joy and sorrow. We can hold the tension of both. It is worth it!

Cari D. Dawson, MTS, MA, JD, has been a Grief Recovery Specialist for over twenty years. She helps grievers in the Portland, Oregon area. Visit her website is for more information and a link to her blog. 

14 replies »

  1. My family went through it when our favorite cat J D died. She had cancer, she suffered, but she stayed away and hid herself, from the time she was sick. Towards the end she could not move, and didn’t mind us when we put her in her bed.
    I can understand how you felt when your dog died.

  2. Years later I still cry at the thought of losing one of my pets….the sheer terror at the memory of days spent in fear of losing my grandson, born at only 26 weeks gestation. (He survived but teeters on the edge daily for months)
    All The love and sometimes guilt…what could I have done differently, more etc.

  3. I just want to hug you, Laura, and listen to your story. I’m wondering why you feel responsible for doing something to change the past. You seem to be experiencing cumulative losses. Often something as profound the thought of losing a grandchild causes us to tap into old losses never grieved. Hold on to the love; try to let loose of guilt.

  4. For many of us losing a pet is losing a family member but we sometimes have to deal with friends, co workers or bosses who don’t understand this if they are not “animal people” themselves. It’s hard to be asked why you are upset and when you say “my cat died.” the reply is something like “But you have another cat don’t you?” or “but she was old wasn’t she?”as if that somehow makes it not such a big deal. A lot of the people I am close to do share my feelings about pets so that has not happened to me often but it has happened.

    • Thank you for pointing out that “intellectual statements” like saying your cat was old are not helpful. They may be true, but they are of the head and not the heart, that is why they feel heartless. I’m glad you have a community around you with whom you can share feelings. We don’t want someone to fix us; we just want someone to listen compassionately when we are in pain, when we are grieving a loved one.

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